It’s been one year since Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar redefined space-time’s ethereal beauty. It’s been two years since Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity crafted the dangers of space travel into a roller coaster ride. Both films received considerable attention at their respective Academy Awards, cementing their legacy as great movies about space.
But of course, three’s company, and it would make perfect sense for there to be just one more space movie this year. The wish is granted in a great way with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, an incredible story of survival when the closest help is 140 million miles away.
Astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) works on the usual tasks with his crew on a manned Mars mission. In the midst of a violent dust storm – punctuated by exceptional sound design and mixing – Mark is struck by large debris and vanishes in the fray. Concluding that Mark has died, teammate Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, another Interstellar star). Back on Earth, Mark receives a hero’s funeral, emphatically eulogized by NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), who is always stiff and humorless anyway. (It’s part of the job.)
Except the left-for-dead astronaut awakens the next day, buried in red dust. He is alive and well, even with sharp debris lodged in his gut. Mark still has their base camp with state-of-the-art technology to keep him alive for at least a while, but to get in it for the long haul, he must use the fullest of his improvisation, intelligence, and ingenuity that made NASA hire him in the first place.
From the inception of the film, the hype train has kept chugging for The Martian. There’s the story of author Andy Weir, who tirelessly researched the logistics of a manned Mars mission to produce an accurate, yet enjoyable novel. Just a few days ago, NASA scientists confirmed the existence of running water on the surface of Mars – and their timing of the announcement would lead you to believe NASA and 20th Century Fox were in cahoots. And simply having Matt Damon and Ridley Scott attached to a film brings box office draw on their names alone, as if the sharp and beautiful trailers didn’t do that already.
The Martian avoids crashing and burning a la Waterworld, and the successes start with an incredibly strong script by Drew Goddard (World War Z). By capturing themes of survival against impossible odds and resourceful ingenuity, Goddard brings Survivorman-style fun to a sci-fi story. In doing so, Goddard makes the source material even more accessible and entertaining, even if some inevitably complain that the book was better than the movie. That’s what’s especially intriguing about The Martian: it as fun to watch as a Discovery Channel survival show… in space.
There’s even something to be said about Ridley Scott’s direction. Traditionally an auteur of darker, more serious sci-fi movies (Alien and Blade Runner come to mind), Scott retools his skills to deliver a pacier, more lighthearted movie that entertains and satisfies as well as it dazzles visually. While it's especially prevalent in Watney’s Mars sequences – Scott makes dusting off solar panels and planting potatoes seem interesting – it’s also true in the Earth-based scenes, where Sanders and other NASA members handle the PR storm that comes with announcing Watney’s survival. Among them: Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (a great Sean Bean), both of whom butt heads more than once with the stalwart Sanders. Not surprisingly, though, Damon’s Watney is the real star here, a real charmer and a great hero for our admiration.
For all of the interest that the film generates in its main character and the rescue mission back on Earth, it does, however, make itself to be predictable. Mark Watney, as funny and lighthearted as he is, seems only capable of being funny and lighthearted. There’s little expansion in his character beyond that. It also doesn’t help that the ending to the film is already a given, given that the trailer features Watney describing the attitude of fighting against a doomed death. While these are prominent shortcomings in the film – big enough to suck all enjoyment out of most other movies – The Martian is so well-directed, shot, composed, and acted that these shortcomings seem minuscule details in the big picture.
With Matt Damon front and center and Ridley Scott working his usual sci-fi magic, The Martian manages to be both a solid Oscar contender and a great popcorn-muncher. If Black Mass was the unofficial start to the awards season, then The Martian is a fit successor, and is hopefully an indicator of movies to come.